Text Size

Clearing the Crowded Skies: NASA Software Helps Improve Air Traffic Management
image of Facet results A FACET snapshot of air traffic over the United States on July 10, 2006 at 2:45 p.m. EST/ 11:45 a.m. PST.
›  Link to larger photo

image of Facet results FACET is a flexible software tool that provides powerful simulation capabilities and can rapidly generate thousands of aircraft trajectories to enable efficient planning of traffic flows at the national level.
›  Link to larger photo

A NASA spinoff technology is helping air traffic controllers and airlines manage the nation’s busy aviation corridors.

Gridlock, bottlenecks, bumper-to-bumper jams—we all get caught in congestion at one time or another. There are the times when we look up at the sky in frustration, see all of the available space and then ask ourselves when the future is going to gift us with flying cars that let us bypass all of the congestion on the ground.

In terms of congestion, however, airspace is not much different than road space. At any given time there are thousands of planes flying over the U.S. As any experienced air traveler knows, there can be just as many congestion issues associated with air travel as there can be with ground travel.

To keep a handle on the complex flow of aircraft across America, the United States depends on a tightly run air traffic control system. Our air traffic control centers do their best to maximize safety and minimize delays in the air and at U.S. airports and airfields. To help the centers improve the safety and the efficiency of the National Airspace System, NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., developed software called the Future Air Traffic Management Concepts Evaluation Tool (FACET).

With powerful modeling and simulation capabilities, FACET can swiftly generate thousands of aircraft trajectories that can help to streamline the flow of air traffic across the entire national airspace. Actual air traffic data and weather information are used to evaluate an aircraft’s flight-path and predict its trajectories. The resulting data is presented in a 3-D graphical user interface.

FACET is one of the many air traffic management software tools developed at Ames as part of NASA’s Airspace Systems Program, which aims to satisfy the nation’s plans for a next-generation airspace system.

Ames licensed FACET to McLean, Virginia-based Flight Explorer Inc., for integration with its Flight Explorer software system in 2005. FACET is now a fully integrated feature in Flight Explorer Professional, a flight-tracking and management-decision support tool that the aviation community can use to improve operational efficiency and business performance. The tool incorporates NASA’s FACET technology to graphically depict airports and air sectors that are approaching capacity, or are over capacity. FACET provides a count of the total number of arrivals and departures at airports every 15 minutes, plus a count of aircraft flying and aircraft anticipated to be flying within a given sector every 15 minutes -- all while calculating loading predictions and weather conditions -- to help keep flights on schedule.

The benefits of FACET to both commercial aviation and the general public are many. More efficient flight trajectories means less fuel burned per flight, minimizing environmental emissions and noise pollution. Improved efficiency can result in less delays and the ability to accommodate higher levels of air traffic, increasing the nation’s mobility and reducing costs. Flight Explorer’s FACET-enhanced software now provides these benefits to clients that include more than 80 percent of North America's major airlines.

“We utilize Flight Explorer Professional in both our daily operation and analysis. It allows our operational managers to understand and then react to situations in real time,” said Christopher Forshier of the Systems Operations Coordination Center at Houston-based Continental Airlines.

FACET was recognized in 2006 by NASA as the agency's Software of the Year. For its widespread influence and potential to help revolutionize the National Airspace System, FACET also has been honored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, being awarded the 2010 NASA Government Invention of the Year. Thanks to FACET, travelers may not have to look too far into the future for a break in the crowded skies.

To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article from Spinoff 2007: